I’m Chanpory, and this is my site on how to live and work better as a designer.

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Want to be a designer right now? Just look in the mirror, and say, “I’m a designer.”

Okay, I know that sounds like a lame self-help motivational trick, but hear me out:

Everyone designs, even you

First, what is designing? Before I write a dissertation to answer that question, here’s a concise definition from Nobel Prize winner and Carnegie Mellon professor, Herbert Simon:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.

The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state

The Sciences of the Artificial

In other words, designing is an activity that everyone does. You design everyday, from planning a vacation to laying out your living room to creating a Powerpoint presentation. The difference between so-called non-designers and professional designers, is that the latter happens to do it for a living.

So call yourself a designer now

My advice for anyone wanting to be a professional designer (you want to get paid for it), is to call yourself a designer early and often.

If you’re reluctant, you’re not alone. I’ve interviewed students from schools such as the California College of the Art, San Jose State University, and The Academy of Art University who are also afraid to label themselves “designers”. Unless they have an official degree, they are simply “students.” The fear is that they are not yet skilled or experienced enough.

My response to this fear? You may not be a good designer now. In fact, you may be a terrible designer–even with a degree. But how will you improve, if you don’t get the courage to identify as one?

It’ll take years, maybe decades, to become a great designer. You can’t start, however, until you take two seconds to say, “I’m a designer.”

16 Comments

  • Aaron :: miLienzo.com

    gravatarAug 3, 2007
    12:11 pm

    I can really relate to what you say here having just graduated from a design college.

    Up until graduation time I considered myself a ‘wannabe’ designer, still learning my trade. When I did my graduation exhibition I finally called myself a designer, and printed business cards calling myself a designer.

    And guess what, I’ve got a job now… as a designer. I’m a designer.

  • mark

    gravatarAug 3, 2007
    5:14 pm

    I appreciate the commitment to being the role. The power of declaration is an important part of being that role. However I would have to disagree with your post because it does take more than putting on the black shirt and fancy shoes to be a designer. The democratization of technology has opened up the gates for design, yet it has also taken it a step back. Because there are no measurables for determining levels of designers, “everyone” is a designer. This makes it difficult for clients I believe to find a proper fit for more demanding projects. This also dilutes the time, energy, and money professional designers put into there careers. A person with say 10 years of high level professional design experience and education is known as a “designer”, the same title a person who just bought a mac and a software package could declare. The discussion of certification tests has circulated for years. I’m curious how people feel about this.

  • Chanpory

    gravatarAug 3, 2007
    6:10 pm

    Hey Mark, totally agree with you on the notion that there is a huge difference between someone with lots of professional design experience and someone who just bought a Mac and a “How To Do Design Book.”

    My point isn’t to say that everyone can become an amazingly experienced designer just by declaring it. You can say you’re a designer, but it doesn’t make you a good one.

    Nonetheless, if you are serious about becoming a designer (and eventually a good one), you should start calling yourself one as soon as possible. The sooner you do, the more likely you’ll work towards the goal of becoming an experienced and skilled designer.

    Certainly, there is a plethora of poor designers. Just like there’s an abundance of bad writers. Should experienced designers feel threatened by this? No. If anything, the seasoned designer should encourage the green designer to improve.

    I am very critical of the ivory tower that some designers live in. The thinking is that you have to be born with “talent,” go to the right school, or have the best looking portfolio in the world to qualify as a designer. And so real designers should protect the industry from the encroaching mass of poor designers. But experience and an amazing body of work does not guarantee great thinking or design.

  • Neil Simpson

    gravatarAug 3, 2007
    6:15 pm

    “Tell yourself you are a great individual and believe in yourself, for if you don’t believe in yourself, it will be hard for others to believe in you.” — Walter Payton, one of the greatest American football players

  • Vincent

    gravatarAug 3, 2007
    11:50 pm

    Mark and people like him seem overly concerned with the loss of prestige associated with the “designer” moniker. Truly, many people consider themselves designers who have little education or experience or, perhaps to the detriment of those of us who call ourselves “real” designers”, ability.

    But the fact is, there are designers, and there are designers. What separates the wheat from the chaff, ultimately, is our work, not our education or even necessarily our talent. An analogy: there are cars, and then there are cars. You can buy a car knowing that it calls itself a car, but the differences between, say, a Ford Fiesta and a Bugatti Veyron are vast and varied. They both have four wheels, doors, and internal combustion engines, but the difference, my friends, is in the details–some of which you wouldn’t notice without having driven both. They’re both cars, certainly, and sure, both might be good cars, but there are many differences between a good car and a great car.

    Everybody has to start somewhere. Calling oneself a designer is a great start. But it’s ultimately the follow through that matters.

  • Jason

    gravatarAug 4, 2007
    8:47 pm

    As someone who dared call himself a designer back in the day (a computer and Adobe made me one), I can attribute to the desire to give yourself positive reinforcement and positive thinking. However, after I married someone who studied design and art for years, I suddenly realized there is a huge difference. I no longer call myself a graphic designer. The difference to me is a sense of craft. To me, to call yourself a professional in a field because you have some tools and a desire to learn is somewhat dishonest. I wouldn’t call myself a mechanic just because I have some wrenches and a desire to work on cars. In the end, there’s a certain level of professional experience and ability. Notice I say nothing of talent, but experience and knowledge.

    I also have seen several of my friends who are learned and experienced designers consistently lose jobs to clients who choose their neighbor down the street with a Mac. Now, the problem is, most of these clients don’t know the difference, and I would have a hard time convincing someone to pay $3000 for a logo when their nephew can do it for $200. But as someone who makes websites, is married to a designer, and works with them everyday, it is the craft in the profession that I have to believe in, or otherwise, many of all of our efforts are in vain.

    I’m all for people aspiring to be a designer. And I’m glad there is such a desire to work in the profession, but it is so hard to find people with talent these days, among hundreds of hacks with no knowledge or experience, that I feel the profession is taking a step backwards as people dilute the work, and diminish the ability to be paid as a professional-and the beginning of that problem is people calling themselves something they are not.

  • Vincent

    gravatarAug 5, 2007
    10:01 pm

    @Jason:

    One could argue that the people paying cousins or nephews or whatever to design something for them probably wouldn’t have paid the industry-standard $3000 for a logo anyway even fifty years ago, before computer-aided design was so popular.

    Chances are, back then, the same was true: they either did it themselves or hired a friend or relative to do it for a small fee. The small business owners and individuals out there who need a logo or website or pamphlet ASAP don’t really give a crap about kerning or color theory or demographics. The trick for designers is finding clients that actually do care and trust the designer to do what he or she was trained to do.

    As to the industry taking a step back, have you seen a design annual lately? There is a lot of great design out there. Tons. Sure, there’s plenty of bad design as well, but more people are really learning about design now than ever before.

    You’re right about the sense of craft, that that’s what separates a designer from a non-designer, but I also think time will separate the good people from the less-than-good people. As the newness of the computer age wears off (it’s still new, and it will wear off), people that call themselves designers will lose interest and the real craftspeople will live on, in a business sense.

  • Jason

    gravatarAug 6, 2007
    9:05 am

    @Vincent

    As the newness of the computer age wears off, people that call themselves designers will lose interest and the real craftspeople will live on

    This is a great point, and one that I hadn’t really considered; That as time moves on, and desktop publishing apps fade as a “new” acquisition to the public, I think you’re right, people will lose interest.

  • Chanpory

    gravatarAug 6, 2007
    11:27 am

    Another point I wanted to make with this post is that we must think about designing in a broader sense. Graphic designers, fashion designers, interaction designers, etc are not the only people who are “designing.” When we talk about “craft” we are talking about the quality of the end products specific to a particular industry. Of course, some are better at crafting end products than others. This, however, does not mean they have exclusive domain over the activity of design.

    Design is more than the end-product, it’s an activity and process that we all do. My view is that it’s a fundamental and basic activity like reading and writing. Just imagine if designing was taught in elementary school along with the three Rs. We would be more comfortable with change, more accepting of change, and more willing to change.

  • Vincent

    gravatarAug 6, 2007
    10:00 pm

    @Chanpory:

    Good point. There is a sense of snobbery among designers; we graphics people tend to forget that we’re only a tiny niche of people with a skill to provide a service, and not much more than that.

    …what are the three Rs, anyway?

  • Jared

    gravatarAug 7, 2007
    7:47 am

    Maybe everyone is a designer. Maybe. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is good at it. Not everyone dedicates the time, talent and energy it takes to move from amateur to professional. Nor does everyone care to do so.

    In this same vein of reasoning:

    Everyone is an author. (Have you ever written a string of words?)

    Everyone is a chef. (Have you ever made toast?)

    Everyone is an athlete. (Have you ever run, walked fast, or ridden a bike?)

  • Chanpory

    gravatarAug 7, 2007
    8:32 am

    Jared, exactly. Everyone writes, cooks, and performs. And everyone designs.

    These are activities that we all do. My point was never to say that calling yourself a designer automatically makes you a skilled practitioner.

    Again, “you may not be a good designer now. In fact, you may be a terrible designer–”even with a degree. But how will you improve, if you don’t get the courage to identify as one?”

    My point is about confidence. If you want to become great, get the confidence to own the role you want to excel in. Someone who writes and wants to be a writer, should starting calling herself a writer. Some who designs and wants to be a professional designer should call himself a designer.

    So many people are afraid to pursue a particular career because they feel untalented, uncreative, and ungifted. Partly, this mentality is perpetuated by the legacy of guilds which we still buy into: only people born with a particular gif, trained in a particular way, and by a particular group can rightfully call themselves designers, writers, cooks, and athletes.

    Maybe I’m a sap, but I believe in Chef’s Gusteau’s motto from the movie Ratatouille, “Anyone can cook!”

    And likewise, “Anyone can design!”

  • sara

    gravatarAug 20, 2007
    1:04 am

    @Jared: I agree with you 100%. You have a point. Though I recently announced that “I am a designer”, and I must say, it blows the self-esteem so high and it made me want to become even better and achieve even more because now people recognize me in my field – as a designer.

  • Arini

    gravatarJun 19, 2009
    1:37 am

    Very good! I’ll try to prove it ! Thanks for your advice…”I’am a designer”

  • Ladyj (doing great :)

    gravatarAug 19, 2009
    10:54 am

    Hey-people-a “Designer” by nature is one who CREATES…and naturally! To be a Designer is simply to use your natural “Intelectual Property” to bring forth an idea, a product, a process and even a service.

    When I was 3 years old, I naturally knew I was an Artist! I didn’t say: “I want to be an Artist when I grow up”…I actually called myself an Artist…I became and Artist that designs, therefore, a Designer! Designing and creating is a natural process (of the Right Brain :)but unfortunately, mostly not encouraged by our American Society. We are mostly taught to compromise to Left Brain Careers) making Artist and Designers even more special and unique.

    I am sure many of us grew up hearing things like: “Artist starve” and or “Choose a well RESPECTED carreer like a nurse or a doctor instead of an Artist or Designer”. The truth is, we all have the ability to create and design.

    Again, an Artist designs and a Designer uses their artistic skills to design. Whether you are more inclined or not is another story.

    But, people that design things on a daily basis either do it professionally to solve every day problem, including in Interior Decorating or even product developemnet designing a plastic bouncing alarm clock that vibrates, walks and runs crazy across a room…have you seen it…created and design by a normal average person? Or, have you heard the latest?…a washing machine that can flush your toilet using your used washing water called “Grey Water” that sits in a seperate tank until needed by your toliet to flush?.

    Many of these designers hire industry people like engineers and even product developemnet people to help them execute their ideas because they do lack the know “How to” knowledge and skills. (an make thousands like me :)

    Even as an Artist & Designer, I often hire industry people to co-create and collaborate ideas and projects. Sometimes even other professional designers are employed to work together. So don’t kid yourself-go for the gold!

    Nothing is impossible, so arrive at saying: “I’m an Artist”, I’m a Designer, I’m an Artist by nature that designs”! Same thing, no matter how you slice the pie :)

    In the mean time, I believe your first step is to ask yourself first: Who am I?…and not, Who should I be or become?

    May I motivate you further? Start your research at: Designwire.com and see what people all over the world are designing…and making millions! Nothing is impossible if you are willing to work a little harder!

    Best regards to all…I may just return…if you’re nice to me:) and the fact that I’m a very busy artist…designing :)

  • Fashionista Megan

    gravatarJul 8, 2010
    9:40 pm

    Everyone can call themselves “designers” no matter what field of expertise they belong. But when it comes to designing, it’s only known with the output.

    So for fashion design, you’ll be called an Expert designer, when you have proven your craft. Having designed, created and sold more that people will come back for more.